As midterm voter turnout reaches a 50-year high, TV ratings soar

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CNN confirms that Democrats have regained control of the House.
CNN confirms that Democrats have regained control of the House. Credit: CNN

While fewer than half of all registered voters bothered to show up at the polls Tuesday (more on that below), TV coverage of the 2018 midterm elections still managed to put up the sort of ratings you'd expect to see in a country that fully participates in the democratic process.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, some 32.3 million viewers tuned in to watch the primetime election results across cable news channels Fox News, CNN and MSNBC and broadcast nets NBC, ABC and CBS. If the combined audience for the six networks had been watching the same programming, Tuesday night's overall deliveries would qualify the midterms coverage as the year's sixth most-watched program, trailing only Super Bowl LII, the State of the Union Address and three NFL playoff games.

Toss in the incremental deliveries served up by Hispanic nets Univision and Telemundo and the non-ad-supported PBS, and Tuesday's election average creeps up to 36.1 million viewers.

Although there's no way to make a proper apples-to-Fiona-Apple comparison to the most recent midterm elections—four years ago, the broadcast nets limited their coverage to the 10 p.m. ET time slot—cable deliveries were up 71 percent versus the analogous evening in 2014.

While Fox News Channel won the night with an average draw of 7.78 million viewers in prime, CNN laid claim to the all-important demo win. A favorite target of President Trump, CNN averaged 2.55 million adults 25-54 over the three-hour period, edging FNC's 2.39 million. MSNBC brought up the rear among the cable outlets with an average draw of 1.35 million demographically apposite viewers.

Where it mattered most, CNN saw its midterm demo deliveries rise 183 percent compared to the 909,000 adults 25-54 who tuned in for its 2014 election coverage, while FNC's target audience was up 43 percent from 1.66 million adults 25-54. MSNBC, meanwhile, saw its guaranteed audience soar 158 percent versus the 525,000 adults 25-54 it eked out on the night of Nov. 4, 2014.

As is generally the case during election-returns coverage or any sort of all-hands-on-deck breaking news story, the three cable outlets pared down their ad loads during Tuesday night's telecasts. CNN slashed its inventory to the bone; per estimates, the network in primetime ran only six minutes of national ad units, which marked an 86 percent drop compared to Monday night's 42.5 minutes of commercial time. MSNBC cut its Tuesday night ad load 42 percent from 32.5 minutes to 19, while FNC's cuts were the shallowest of the three, amounting to a 34 percent night-to-night reduction from 38 to 25 minutes of sponsor messaging.

On the broadcast side, NBC enjoyed an edge over ABC while CBS finished the night a distant third. NBC's primetime election coverage averaged 5.41 million viewers, of whom 2.16 million were members of the 25-54 demo, while ABC drew 4.98 million viewers and 1.85 million adults 25-54. CBS put up the lowest numbers among all six participating networks, averaging 3.84 million viewers, of whom 1.32 million were in the dollar demo.

In terms of corporate dominance, Comcast/NBCUniversal was unmatched by the likes of 21st Century Fox, the Walt Disney Co., Turner Broadcasting and CBS Corp. The tandem NBC and MSNBC nets together averaged 9.89 million viewers, of whom 3.51 million were of particular interest to advertisers. Together the corporate siblings accounted for nearly one-third of all primetime election deliveries.

Fox News also is linked to a traditional broadcast operation, but the Fox network last night stayed clear of the electoral scuffle, choosing instead to air all-new episodes of its Tuesday-night dramas "The Gifted" and "Lethal Weapon."

Although voter turnout reached a 50-year high for a midterm election cycle—an estimated 113 million Americans did their civic duty yesterday, marking the first time in history a midterm drew north of 100 million registered voters—51 percent of eligible voters still decided to sit out the action on Tuesday. Those who shirked their responsibilities didn't have all that much to distract them Tuesday night beyond Fox's offerings; but for a pair of college basketball games on ESPN (including a 118-84 Duke blowout of Kentucky), Bravo's "Below Deck" and FX's "Mayans M.C.," election talk was all but inescapable last night.

That said, those in an ironic frame of mind could find succor in USA Network's presentation of the 2013 dystopian theatrical "The Purge."

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